When you imagine a gourmet experience, what comes to mind? An elegant restaurant, perhaps, with a single candle flickering at the center of a luminous white tablecloth? Maybe a quartet plays somewhere in the romantic distance, as the waiter slips a perfectly plated appetizer of escargot before you, and you proceed to nuzzle them out of their shells with silver tongs and that dainty fork? Perhaps this isn’t your image. Perhaps yours includes a view of the Pacific shore or the skyline of Manhattan or a wine list as long as actuarial table. But does your image include a taco truck? When Food & Wine magazine declared Roy Choi on of its “Best New Chefs” of 2010 for the food he was serving up in his Kogi BBQ truck, it signaled something like a sea change had happened in our idea of gourmet eating.
And that’s the very change that Alison Pearlman explores in her book, Smart Casual: The Transformation of Gourmet Restaurant Style in America (University of Chicago, 2013). As she puts it, “Between 1975 and 2010, the style of gourmet dining in America transformed. Increasingly, restaurants of ‘fine’ dining incorporated food, décor, and other elements formally limited to the ‘casual’ dining experience.” The result, as Pearlman shows us, is a gourmet experience “replete with eroded hierarchies and pointed style contrasts, convergences of haute and ordinary.” And, we might add, taco trucks. In a keen investigation of every element of the dining experience, from menus to molecular gastronomy, Pearlman’s book reveals the surprising nature of what fine dining means for us today.